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State Government and Political Roundup: Baldwin voted yes, Johnson no on online retailers to charge state sales tax

WASHINGTON D.C - Wisconsin's two U.S. senators split their votes yesterday, when the Senate agreed to force online retailers to charge state sales taxes - just like brick-and-mortar stores have to do.

The measure was passed 69-to-27. Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Madison voted yes, and Republican Ron Johnson of Oshkosh voted no. He said he favors a level playing field but the bill puts "too much of a burden on online retailers." The bill now goes to the House, where observers say it faces tougher sledding. State revenue officials say Wisconsin would get an extra $95-million a year, once an Internet sales tax is fully implemented. Right now, only stores with a physical presence in a state must charge sales tax on Web purchases within that state. Wisconsin shoppers are supposed to voluntarily report sales taxes on their income tax returns - but relatively few people do so. Sheboygan jeweler Alan Rudnick said the current situation puts him at a five-percent cost disadvantage against Internet retailers who don't have to charge the sales tax like he does. Catalog retailer Miles Kimball of Oshkosh says it would be a headache to keep each state's sales tax straight, and provide refunds to those who overpay the tax. Stores with less than a million dollars a year in online sales would be exempt from the proposed law.


Three unions are starting a campaign today to urge state lawmakers to approve five health care bills - including one to bring back collective bargaining for UW Hospital employees. State Senate Democrat Jon Erpenbach of Middleton and state Assembly Democrat Jon Richards of Milwaukee are sponsoring the measures. Leaders of the Service Employees International Union, Wisconsin Federation of Nurses, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees planned a mid-day news conference. About 300 health care workers were expected to meet with other lawmakers today, to lobby for the five measures. One would restore bargaining for about five-thousand UW medical workers, who can only seek pay hikes at-or-below inflation under Act-10. They have three contracts in the process of expiring through late January. The other bills would require minimum ratios of nurses to patients - ban mandatory overtime - require safe patient handling programs - and create programs to prevent violence and bullying of health care personnel. The unions said most workplace assaults from 2003-to-'07 involved assaults on health care and social assistance workers.


A Wisconsin State Assembly committee has scheduled a vote for Thursday on a bill to restore mandatory prison sentences for the state's most chronic drunk drivers. The judiciary panel will take up a bill from Mequon Republican Jim Ott. He wants to nullify a recent appeals court ruling which gave judges the option of sending repeat OWI offenders to prison. The bill would require judges to impose minimum prison terms of three years for a drunk driver's seventh, eighth, and ninth convictions - and a minimum of four years for 10 convictions or more. The bill also includes a mandatory 30-day jail sentence for drivers who cause injuries with a blood-alcohol content of zero-point-four to zero-point-eight.


Wisconsin lawmakers are expected to vote today on a bill to double the fines for those who drive recklessly around garbage trucks. Both the state Assembly and the Senate are scheduled to take up the measure. Assembly Republican John Jagler of Watertown proposed the bill, after a sanitation worker in his district was seriously hurt by a driver in January while collecting trash. The National Solid Waste Management Association says up to eight sanitation workers are killed each year by reckless vehicles. Wisconsin and most other states require drivers to slow down or move as far away as possible from police and other emergency vehicles on roadsides - but Michigan is the only state with a similar requirement for garbage trucks. The Senate is also scheduled to vote today on a bill to expand the definitions of illegal food stamp trafficking. The upper House is also expected to let dentists charge more for some of their services, by approving changes in current contracts. The Assembly passed both those bills a few weeks ago.


The Wisconsin State Assembly is scheduled to vote today on a bill aimed at reducing the amount of junk food bought by those on food stamps. Neenah Republican Dean Kaufert says taxpayers provide the Food-Share benefits, and the government should decide what those benefits should be used for. Kaufert says everybody seems to have a story about seeing food stamp users load up on soda-and-chips at the grocery store. A committee recently softened his bill by making Food-Share recipients spend two-thirds of their benefits on healthy foods approved by the state. There would also have to be a study of what the change would cost grocery stores and their suppliers. Even if the state approves Kaufert's bill, the federal government would have the final say, since it covers most of the costs of the billion-dollar Food-Share program. Kaufert admits that Washington has said no to similar requests from other states - but he says it's the principle of the thing. Food makers, grocers, and food banks have all lined up against the bill, saying it would create higher costs for them and for taxpayers. The state Health Services Department, which operates the Food-Share program, is not taking a stand on the measure. Agency spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley says there have been no studies on the types of groceries bought with Food-Share benefits.


Governor Scott Walker says he'll make sure Wisconsin is in full compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws involving the state's private school voucher program. The governor said yesterday that his office will work with the state-and-federal Justice departments and the state's education agency to address issues raised last month. Walker also said he'll meet privately on the subject with state public school Superintendent Tony Evers. Federal justice officials told the state Department of Public Instruction to make sure that tax-funded students in private schools are not discriminated against. Washington said the state must improve its oversight of voucher schools, and change practices for enrolling and serving youngsters. Evers said his agency might not have the authority to do everything the Justice Department asks - and the Legislature might have to pass a new law. State Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olsen says he believes Evers has the authority he needs. If not, the Ripon Republican says lawmakers should give him that authority.